Two heads are better than one, or so the saying goes. But in a high school classroom, are two teachers better than one?
"It's all in how you implement it," says Susan Fitzell, an educational consultant. "It doesn't work if you just have two bodies in the room."
To be effective, both teachers need to be interacting with students, breaking them into small groups, and teaching to the needs of individual students, says Fitzell, a former special education teacher who began coteaching at Londonderry Senior High School in New Hampshire in 1993 and now coaches other educators on how to coteach.
While Fitzell says she's seen an increase in schools pairing two general education instructors in one classroom to manage larger classes, coteaching teams typically pair a special education teacher with an instructor specializing in general education areas, such as math or science. This allows students with learning disabilities to take the same courses as their peers while still receiving individualized instruction, she says.
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Coteaching can also give educators an opportunity to accommodate students who learn at different paces, Fitzell says.
"When you've got five, six kids in the class that didn't get the core instruction you taught the first 15 minutes of class, you can zero in on what they need immediately, right there in class," she says. "If you've got two teachers in the room, you could do a quick assessment, then reteach the students who need reteaching while allowing other students to accelerate—all within the same class."
Sharing responsibility for planning, grading, and teaching can benefit educators as well as students, but only when there is buy-in from both teachers.
"If teachers share the same work ethic, and have skillsets that complement versus compete with each other … coteaching can help prevent teacher burnout," says Brenda Zofrea, who taught reading and language arts to freshmen at Central High School in Florida, but resigned after one year.
"Having another teacher in my overcrowded classroom to help with lesson plans, discipline, and being able to provide more one-on-one attention to my students would have made all the difference," she says.
While collaboration and communication are key elements to a successful coteaching partnership, ceding control over their classroom can be a hurdle for some teachers, Wendy Murawski and Lisa Dieker, two professors, note in an article for the Council for Exceptional Children.
"Secondary [school] teachers are by nature often more territorial because of the subject-specific environment, and are often accustomed to teaching in isolation," they wrote.
The combination of high-stakes testing and the in-depth subject knowledge of teachers at the high school level can make teaching in tandem tricky, but the payoff for students makes it a challenge worth navigating, says Fitzell, the coteaching expert.
"Before I did coteaching and inclusion, I never saw a kid on an IEP go to college," she says, referring to individualized education plans tailored to students based on their learning challenges. "By having students in general education courses at a level that's respected by colleges … and coteaching to make sure that these kids can be successful, we have kids that will go to college that would never have that opportunity otherwise."
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